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Art and fiction

Startups through the hands of potters, part 2

Mercury’s first pottery collection challenges potters to zero in on an unlikely form of inspiration: the intrepid startup.

Written by Shreeda Segan

Photography by Michael Carbone

Startups through the hands of potters, part 2

The remaining pieces of Mercury’s first pottery collection (be sure to read the first part) are a tribute to the ways in which founders mold their startups to fit what's around them — the market, their teams, their customers. It's similar to how a grain of LMNT salt can change the glaze of a cup, or learning in cohorts like with Maven can change how a founder takes feedback.

LMNT

The word salary comes from salt. ‘Worth your weight in salt’ might have been the OG ‘worth your weight in gold.

James Murphy, co-founder of LMNT

Ecommerce brand LMNT is making an electrolyte drink mix that can help anyone with their salt consumption, including those on paleo, keto, and low-carb diets — the team believes that those who are intentional about how they consume salt don’t have many options available on the market. “As a brand, we hope to inspire claiming your own health,” says James Murphy, co-founder of LMNT.

Murphy explains that the LMNT product is not proprietary, meaning it can be replicated by customers. He’s proud of this fact and says it’s due to the product’s simplicity. Their business model isn’t to guard the recipe; instead, they focus on the customer experience, quality, and consistency.

To make LMNT’s cup, potter Justin Paik Reese, who has over a decade of experience with salt firing, used the brand’s salt to create unpredictable surface patterns, including hints of glow, on his celadon-glazed cup.

He describes salt firing as chaotic and unpredictable; salt vaporizes in the kiln and wraps around the pottery, traveling underneath, inside, and through it. For Reese, the process is a means of “accessing release.”

It’s an emotional process, because there’s a lot on the line, but the end product reflects everything that is in me.

Justin Paik-Reese, potter

Maven

I was always entrepreneurial, even before being a founder.

Wes Kao, co-founder of Maven

“The first decade of online learning was about content. The next decade will be about community,” says Maven’s co-founder Wes Kao. Maven is building a platform for people to learn in cohorts online, which the team believes is the best way to gather new knowledge. “Video-driven courses have a 6-10% completion rate,” Kao explains. “There’s no accountability, no community, and low engagement. But cohort-based learning has a 70%+ completion rate and better student outcomes.”

Maven offers courses on everything from email marketing to product strategy, often led by subject matter experts. Kao previously co-founded cohort-based altMBA in 2015. “Every founder has to make decisions despite imperfect information,” she says. “The fact that you’re doing something new means no one knows the right answer. And you can’t wait for irrefutable proof that a strategy will work before moving forward.”

Potter Simon Levin leads Cohorts.Art, an online, cohort-based course in ceramics. He completed the cup for Maven in his usual style: wood-fired, and primal (his pieces are thrown with minimal to no electricity involved in the process; he uses a kick-wheel rather than electric). He drew inspiration from the Maven logo, which features Doric columns, and added linework to the surface. The cup is also inspired by the forms of Japanese tea cups and does not feature a handle.

You can lead a class but all the peer-based learning happens outside the classroom, with people sharing what they know, what’s worked for them.

Simon Levin, potter

On Deck

I consider it my mission to stand behind founders, especially in the earliest and hardest moments of their journey, when the road ahead can so often feel insurmountable. It can’t be understated: Startups are a force for good that are shaping our future.

David Booth, CEO of On Deck

On Deck is a global community for founders that offers advice on everything from testing and validating ideas to fundraising. Alumni have raised over $900M from investors.

“I get energized seeing two people I introduce create value for each other,” says co-founder and CEO David Booth. In 2016, he attended one of his soon-to-be co-founder Erik Torenberg’s dinners for people looking to start their next companies. This was the first iteration of On Deck. “I was instantly magnetized to this space created for founders and future founders — people on the sidelines who haven’t yet taken the leap,” he remembers.

Potter Lindsay Rogers, who has spent years mentoring several up-and-coming potters, created a cup for On Deck that features an arrow-like figure that wraps around from the bottom to the top, signifying the idea of something (or someone) being catalyzed into upward growth. "I have this intense love of this material and its connection to the Earth. That's why I teach: to share that," she says.

I like the idea of one thing being a catalyst for something else. When I see a student push through something they’ve been struggling with, it’s just so satisfying — now you’ve got it, too. It’s about helping students build their own problem-solving skills.

Lindsay Rogers, potter

LendTable

Greatness is iterative. It's something you choose every single day. Are you going to make a 1% improvement every single day?

Mitchell Jones, co-founder of LendTable

LendTable is on a mission to help everyone get access to their 401(k) match, whether or not they can afford their monthly contributions. The company fronts individuals the cash, which is paid back later along with interest they’ve accumulated. “One key advantage Mitchell and I have is that there are just not a lot of folks that look like us in the fintech and lending spaces,” says co-founder Sheridan Claybourne. “We actually grew up in these communities and understand what our users are going through.”

Co-founders Mitchell Jones and Claybourne grew up in the suburbs of Ohio and saw firsthand the impact that not being able to afford long-term wealth planning had on their families and communities. “My parents had always said to save money,” remembers Jones. “They’d be saving, but they'd saved it on checking accounts or in cash. But it became very clear to me that they were not going to be able to retire because they didn't get to take advantage of compounded interest.”

On her cup, potter Michelle Ettrick uses her unique drawing-inspired style to tell the story of Jones and Claybourne growing up in Ohio, profiling their first experiences with entrepreneurship, selling milk, oranges, and CDs in school. Ettrick moved to the U.S. at a young age after growing up in Panama and had to teach herself English. She eventually saw herself through art school after struggling with homelessness as a single mother in her early adulthood, and now runs her own business selling ceramics.

What I’ve learned is that when you’re talking about yourself and telling your story, your work is so much easier. I was remembering my mom hanging clothes on the laundry, and I would draw that. I would think about my struggles with my natural hair and learning to be happy with what I have.

Michelle Ettrick, potter

Linear

Craftsmanship is building things at the union of science and intuition. Science is listening to users and making sure you understand the problem. But that doesn’t give you the full solution.

Tuomas Artman, co-founder of Linear

Linear, a product management tool that helps streamline software projects, sprints, tasks, and bug tracking, is on a mission to “bring magic back to software” by providing engineers with the right tools.

According to Artman, the right tool can be a “force multiplier” that allows founders to focus on truly delivering value where they are best suited to — not in building everything from scratch themselves. In fact, he says “a tool should be so well thought out that you’re surprised by how it identified your problems and solved it. It should give you something you didn’t expect”.

Asheville-based potter Molly Walter has a keen appreciation for tools herself. While some potters try to minimize using tools built by others, Walter embraces it. Her forms are often sculptural and hand-carved with the help of an assortment of carving tools. The teacup she made for Linear features the Linear logo and curved lines reminiscent of graphs.

Maybe a tool is built for one purpose, but if it’s a really good tool, you’ll find a ton of ways to make it useful. A tool becomes an extension of your body and your mind.

Molly Walter, potte

Thanks also to Caroline Dorn, Kyle Iskra, and Matthew Gordon for their contributions to photography.

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